The first round of the elections for President of France has narrowed the field down to gay-friendly Segolene Royal and frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sunday’s vote saw a massive 85% turnout, the highest since 1965.

Mr Sarkozy took 31.2% of the 37.6 million votes cast and Ms Royal took 25.9%

The centrist candidate Francois Bayrou came a close third with 18.6%.

During the next two weeks of campaigning both camps will focus on wooing his voters.

Fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made it to the final two in 2002, took just 10.4% of the vote.

The 53-year-old Ms Royal is the socialist party candidate for the presidency and would become France’s first woman president if elected.

Her manifesto demands equal rights for same-sex couples, paving the way for future anti-discrimination legislation should the French population elect her.

She has suffered from a series of gaffes during the campaign – at one point she appeared not to know how many nuclear submarines France has.

She also caused controversy by appearing to support the accession of Quebec from France and praised the Chinese justice system as “faster” than France’s.

Human rights advocates pointed out that China executes 10,000 people a year.

In 2000, as the Minister of the Family and Children, Ms Royal spoke out against anti-gay bullying in schools.

“School must be a place of tolerance, of welcome.

“Too many young people face teasing, social exclusion because of their sexual orientation. Some consider drugs, suicide attempts.

“It is time to stand up to this hostility shown towards homosexuality,” she said.

Royal has indicated that she is in favour of same-sex couples adopting.

In 2002, Ms Royal introduced a law that gave legal recognition to families with same-sex parents.

Speaking to the LGBT publication Tetu in 2006, she said she is in favour of same-sex marriage, something which is currently banned under President Jacques Chirac’s conservative ruling UMP party.

“Opening up marriage to same-sex couples is needed in the name of equality, visibility and respect.

“It is essential that everybody has equal rights and dignities and the chance to express themselves freely,” she said.

In contrast, Nicholas Sarkozy, the candidate for the UMP, said in a TV debate earlier this year that he is opposed to any form of gay marriage.

Yesterday he took the highest percentage of the vote in the first round of voting for President since 1974, and many think he is unstoppable.

Speaking to La Liberation newspaper earlier this month Mr Sarkozy, who was until last month the French Interior Minister, criticised the Roman Catholic church’s attitude towards gays.

“I was born heterosexual. I have never questioned myself about the choice of my sexuality. That is why the church’s position, which consists of saying “Homosexuality is a sin,” is shocking,” he told the newspaper.

“One doesn’t choose one’s identity. One has the identity that one has.”

Mr Sarkozy also shared his opinions on the nature of sexuality:

“Not everything depends on nurture, but that part could be nature. In what proportion? I am not a scientist.

“For example, when I was a child I was shocked because people explained to me, when a child was homosexual: “His mother was wrong, she slept with him.

“When a child was autistic, people said: “Oh! The parents got divorced, that caused a shock.” Since then we know that autism is genetic. I think that sexuality also is an identity.”

Despite his criticism of the Roman Catholic church, Mr Sarkozy has made clear his own opposition to gay marriage.

He has promised new adoption rights for gay couples and improved financial arrangements.

Polling carried out in June 2006 suggests that the French population might support Royal’s policies on gay rights.

The Ipsos survey shows that 62% support gay marriage, while 37% were opposed.

When asked whether same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt children, the survey found more people to be in opposition (55%) than in support (44%).

The French will return to the ballot box and choose a successor to Jaques Chirac on Sunday, 6th May.